Democratic Centralism – Public Issue, Private Debate: Rajinder Chaudhary

Guest post by RAJINDER CHAUDHARY

Recent expulsion/resignation of Jagmati Sangwan from CPI(M) is reflective of organizational structure and functioning of the left. It has implications beyond the immediate specific issue of whether alignment of Party with the Congress in recently held Vidhan Sabha elections in Bengal was right or not, or for CPI(M) itself. At stake is principle of ‘democratic centralism’.  Jagmati Sangwan episode has reminded me of an episode of my student days in Panjab University in early 80’s. I was convener of ‘Democratic Students’ Forum’ an independent left leaning student group on the campus (with no link with any political party as such). I was convener but found that my opinion was most often than not a minority opinion. So, effectively I was doing things, implementing decisions that I did not agree with. After many months of very intense work, I expressed my desire to be relieved of the responsibility. This was not accepted. Friends tried to persuade me to change my mind and continue with the responsibility as I ‘was making very valuable contribution’. Organisational colleagues were also personal friends, rather the only personal friends. One had no life beyond the organization. So, there was both organizational as well personal/emotional appeal to continue with the post but I found it was too much to carry out decisions with which one personally differed on grounds of principle. I requested at least a break, a breather from hectic schedule for some time. But rather than accepting my request/resignation from the post of convener, I was “expelled” from the organisation.  And this was just a small, independent left leaning student group that called itself ‘democratic students’ forum’ rather than a unit of a communist party, which goes on to indicate that the problem is rather deep rooted and wide ranging. (I have cross checked my memory of this episode with some other key participants of this incident.)

So, at stake is the key organisational principle of democratic centralism and its operation on the ground; whether a public issue with wide ranging implications and stakes can be debated publically or is to be debated privately behind closed doors? Can dissent be publicly aired or is it more important to maintain an outward façade of unanimity? As per version put out by Jagmati Sangwan, which has not been challenged as yet by the party, during discussions majority of the Central Committee or rather even Politbureau was against having joined hands with the Congress in Bengal elections. This was not just post-facto view but a priori view too.  But before Jagmati Sangwan episode, one did not come across party members publically saying it, not even Jagmati Sangwan.  Rather, most likely, when questioned, she must have defended it (albeit may be lukewarmly). Secondly, in spite of majority in the Central Committee meeting being strongly in support of original Politbureau proposal final Politbureau resolution did not reflect this majority, this ‘sense of the house’. This is when Jagmati Sangwan lost patience and concluded that struggle ‘in side’ was no more possible. But that is precisely how democratic centralism always functions; decisions of higher bodies have to be accepted by lower level organs; discussions inside can be fairly open and at times acrimonious but eventually what leadership proposes is accepted unless off course leadership itself is sharply divided. The Party is always right, most certainly publicly, is fundamental postulate that flows from basic organisational principle of democratic centralism.

In stark contrast to this, around the time of Jagmati Sangwan episode, in referendum on continuation of Britain in European Union, party members across the board were openly espousing different positions and not just in close door party meetings. Which one is a better model of functioning of a political party? Openly and publicly debating issues of public interest or limiting it to close door committee meetings and publicly presenting it as the unanimous view, as the only right option?  Certainly there can be issues that require close door confidential decision making but such issues should be exceptions rather than the default option. But policy issues, where there are widely divergent views, should be openly thrashed out rather than being confined to boardroom meetings alone. While we expect Governments to publically share draft policies/legislations for prior public consultations, why should a democratic party or organization not do the same? While we expect that the dissenting view be recorded in official committee meetings in Government or public institutions, and it is recorded at least in some cases, how can organizations that seek to deepen democracy impose a blanket gag order on its members? One is not suggesting that it is desirable that parties speak in different voices to different audience (a la BJP and other parties on issue of Jat reservation in Haryana) but before arriving at a decision a public debate should be encouraged and decisions be open to public review. It must be realized that there is difference in accepting a decision and defending it. A party (or for that matter an organization) may legitimately require members to accept duly taken decision, particularly one taken after wide ranging consultations but it cannot or at least should not expect members to defend it too. But this is what democractic centralism demands. Publicly the party has to be always defended and dissent may only be voiced at internal party fora.

Disassociation of Jagmati Sangwan from the party is a major development for Haryana unit at least, and particularly in her hometown of Rohtak. Not only she has been a leading face of left politics for a long time particularly on women issues, she recently quit her job to devote full time to party work. Her husband, who was till recently state secretary for maximum permissible three terms, is still an important leader of the Party. Given this, one would expect that at least in Haryana/Rohtak the development would be debated actively, party members and sympathizers would talk and comment about it. But silence of ‘activists’ who comment on all issues on the earth, who engage with sympathizers and ‘masses’ on all and sundry issues, is deafening. Even in social gatherings of sympathisers, let alone Party members, there are comments about Modi and his politics but not a mention of developments closer home. One can not presume that it did not affect party members/sympathisers in a significant way, that it was an insignificant or long expected development. If something affects you deeply, if you are shaken but you just keep quiet about it or talk about it in monosyllables and in very confined conditions, this cannot be healthy or normal. About domestic violence, an issue very close to the heart of Jagmati Sangwan, it is generally argued that silence and denial are the major hurdles in tackling it. It cannot be any different for organizational issues. If openly sharing one’s viewpoint about social issues is essence of democracy, it cannot be any different for any organization or party seeking to deepen democracy.

As evidently universities and army units cannot be run on same organizational norms so also a political party engaged in armed rebellion or underground activities, and one engaged in open and legitimate parliamentary politics cannot be run on same organizational norms. It is time communist parties rethink about Leninist code of democratic centralism and adopt more transparent and open norms of functioning. Otherwise their struggles and sacrifices would not bear fruit. An organization geared to accept that party is always right cannot be expected to undertake break through innovations, cannot be expected to take timely local level initiatives and respond to emerging situations imaginatively. Without this openness and innovation, just commitment to right goals does not do much good; shrinking or stagnant fortunes of left as such and many well meaning organizations are clear evidence of this. Without vibrant inner party democracy, all struggles and sacrifices can go waste and one has no doubts that being communist, at least in states where communist parties have not been in power and are nowhere near it, is a mark of struggle and sacrifice, is a mark of deep commitment to social good rather than narrow personal goals.  Even if Jagmati Sangwan issue were to end amicably with her being back in party, issue of private debate on public issues should be examined at length. Communist parties owe it to themselves, sympathisers and public at large which would benefit from having an option to choose from a really different political party with an alternative vision.

Rajinder Chaudhary is former Professor of Economics, MD University, Rohtak and Advisor to Kudarti Kheti Abhiyaan, Haryana. He can be contacted at: rajinderc@gmail.com

4 thoughts on “Democratic Centralism – Public Issue, Private Debate: Rajinder Chaudhary

  1. K SHESHU BABU

    Mainstream communists parties are , sadly, following the other mainstream party politics – both internally and externally. They are unable to come out from patriarchy, leadership hegemony, intolerance of criticism and importance of grabbing power rather than people’s welfare. As long as they do not radically reform their structure and follow collective leadership, the ‘ fate’ of sincere workers may not change.

  2. Sahil

    I came across your post through your email which I found to be quite personal and made me feel compelled to respond.

    I first heard the news through the Party news email in which I read that she had been expelled for ‘gross indiscipline’. I was quite shocked and a little surprised. A little surprised because I could imagine what the gross indiscipline must’ve been (having witnessed many such instances in the past few years), but more shocked as I never would’ve imagined this equation between the party and her. As I believe was natural, I was quite perturbed by the news and tried talking about it with others who had like me known her for years in Rohtak. We did talk, but those talks lasted for 5-10 minutes each and with tones of resignation and sadness. The general feeling was that it was understandable but sad, because in the end what she did was wrong.

    But that was the extent of it. I do believe you are right when you say that the problem is deeper and is not limited to just the Party. And I do know what the general effect of this has been. If you have a problem with anything, you voice it inside the organization, being an active part of the organization. Any opinion voiced outside, will be treated as one from an outsider. And what happens when one voices one’s disagreement inside? Well I can only talk for the young members who are basically faced with the reply, you don’t have the time and amount of ground work experience with you to be questioning decisions taken by much-experienced comrades, something which we can never have. So we are left with a situation where we can only work in line with whatever we are told, for an amount of time (I personally decided not to stay and find out how long that period was, it can take decades I’ve seen) required for us to be experienced enough for our opinion to matter. The Party, or various party members at least fear that the Party is getting alienated from the masses. Well, I can assure you this is one of the moments where you succeed in doing that. On the one hand, lack of youth participation is resented, on the other anyone who has the audacity to challenge a decision is to be shown the way out. What you are left with is people who can only agree with decisions you’ve already made. In any case, the Revolution is not on the Party’s agenda, which I believe nullifies the old thesis that whoever is not with the Party is only counter-revolutionary. I’m sure one can be politically useful even from outside, a decision which I’ve seen a lot of people take in recent times.

    So whenever such incidents happen. One does not even feel a point in discussing it a lot. Everyone knows issues like discipline or democratic centralism are non-negotiable, there is not much point in raising or debating them if you want to stay with the Party. So whenever such incidents happen all one feels is sad for Party. Because in the last instance, these things are isolating for the Party and not the members who leave it.

  3. Dr. Swatantra Jain

    I must congratulate you for your bold and deeply concerned views on the state of affairs about party inside politics. It is extremely sad there is hardy any democratic liberalism worth the name and there is hardly any decentralization of power within party. In the name of party discipline, the devoted workers, innovative and concerned insiders are made outsiders the moment they dare take liberty to voice their dissent. This happens every-where, in every party, in every organization and at every level. You have quoted your experience, I can quote my own several experiences, but, don’t you agree that your so called own friends ditch you in the matter of supporting your dissent? They just want to maintain the status-quo. My father, late Mr. Mool Chand Jain -a freedom fighter, also used to be very upset over the silence of the intellectuals called Buddhi-jivi varg. .I fully share your anguish and pain, but the only answer is emergence of very active and bold participants democracy who make small discussion group and discuss every thing thread bare and spread the message.

  4. Pingback: Democratic centralism – ‘freedom of thought (sic.) and unity in action’?: Rajinder Chaudhary | Kafila

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